Tries in either half from Jerry Flannery and Tommy Bowe, allied to six kicks from seven from fly half Ronan O'Gara, saw Ireland emerge as 26-16 winners in Saturday's RBS 6 Nations clash with Italy.
RBS 6 NATIONS: Saturday, February 4
IRELAND 26 ITALY 16, Lansdowne Road
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Flannery, Bowe; Cons: O'Gara 2; Pens: O'Gara 4
Italy: Try: Mirco Bergmasco; Con: Pez; Pens: Pez 2, Griffen
O'Gara, earning his 56th cap, converted both tries and kicked four penalties from seven goal attempts to guide Ireland to their tenth victory in 13 meetings with the Azzurri.
It was admittedly a fortunate win - Italy, arriving off the back of an autumn campaign that saw them beat Tonga and Fiji, but lose to Argentina, impressed throughout and were well-drilled by new coach Pierre Berbizier.
Converted centre Mirco Bergamasco replied to Flannery's 26th-minute try, three minutes later, to help Italy go in at the break at 10-apiece. They led 10-7 but following the sin-binning of fly half Ramiro Pez for a late tackle on 39 minutes, O'Gara swept over his first penalty to square it up.
The second half saw the game ebb and flow - the Azzurri did well as down to 14 men, they added a penalty through New Zealand-born scrum half Paul Griffen, but they lost their 13-10 lead soon after when Bowe was awarded a 48th-minute try despite doubts surrounding the ground of the ball. Italian flanker Mauro Bergamasco seemed to get back and prevent winger Bowe from conclusively grounding the ball, but English referee Dave Pearson, whistling his first 6 Nations game, decided against going upstairs to the television match official Malcolm Changleng for confirmation, and awarded the Ulsterman his third try in 7 Tests.
Perhaps a fortunate call, but as Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan said afterwards: "It was a bloody good move!" Three penalties from O'Gara in the closing 31 minutes saw Ireland grind out the wind. The Italians could only add one from Pez, but will take a lot of heart from their performance which drew many plaudits from the capacity crowd.
Former scrum half Berbizier, who captained France to victory in Dublin back in 1989, looked suitably pleased as his side opened breathlessly, but opened well.
Centre Gonzalo Canale's second-minute break typified their willingness to attack. Playing on the front foot, Italy garnered a 64% share of possession in the first quarter, and they were territorially dominant too. Ireland weathered the early storm but there were still little glitches - Munster hooker Flannery, making his first start, had a lineout ball stolen by Italian captain Marco Bortolami in the lineout and also threw over the top.
Pez, whose selection was chuckled at by many an observer with his standing as third choice fly half at Perpignan, kicked the visitors in front with a 13th-minute penalty after Shane Horgan failed to release in the tackle. O'Gara drew a quick chance to reply to the right and wide after he had been stung with a late tackle just inside the Italian half. Then Ireland hit a purple patch - full-back Geordan Murphy, hit hard by Bortolami only moments early, was put into space by O'Gara on the left flank but his mis-timed offload for Bowe allowed Canale enough time to get back and put the Ulster flyer into touch.
Horgan saw action, two minutes later, on the right wing - he was bundled into touch but Paul O'Connell brilliantly picked off Fabio Ongaro's lineout throw, five metres from the visitors' line, and regrouping well, the Irish pack rumbled over with Flannery nabbing his first try in only his 2nd Test. O'Gara converted and it was game. Yet, Italy were still bossing broken play and on 29 minutes, they deservedly sniped through for a try themselves. The impressive Pez swooped through a gap in midfield between O'Gara and Gordon D'Arcy, held up play before offloading for the younger Bergamasco brother to thunder through with his momentum carrying him over under the challenge of fit-again Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll. Pez converted Bergamasco's 7th Test try for a 10-7 lead.
O'Gara, just before the interval, levelled things. Ireland supporters breathed a sigh of relief when referee Pearson kept his yellow card in his pocket, two minutes before the break, when O'Driscoll lashed out with an out-of-character stamp at a ruck.
Despite being down to 14 men, Italy continued to look the better side in the early stages of the second half. With Pablo Canavosio coming off his wing to play scrum half and Paul Griffen shifting into the fly half role, Italy remained solid. Italy barged up right to the line, winning a penalty fives minutes in. Griffen curled his place kick in sweetly from right to left for a 13-10 buffer. That was to be the last time that the Azzurri led as Ireland gradually got the better of the second half, growing into the game. Bowe's try followed, three minutes later.
O'Gara carved open the Italian defence with a crafty cross-field kick to the left - his third of the afternoon - and this time, the move came off with the unmarked Bowe beating Ludovico Nitoglia and lunging for the line, locked in a tackle with Bergamasco. TV replays showed that Bowe, with the ball tucked under his left arm, did not get conclusive grounding of the ball for the try - Bergamasco seemed to just get under the Monaghan man as he crossed the line, but the try was still awarded and Ireland never looked back.
O'Gara added the conversion and watched with a wry smile as his 59th-minute penalty bounced in off the right upright. After Pez had dinked over his second penalty and missed a lengthy effort, a fourth O'Gara penalty, two minutes from time, finally shifted Ireland more than a converted try in front.
Next Saturday sees Ireland visit the Stade de France (kick-off 1.30pm) and O'Sullivan's players will not need reminding that a substantially greater effort will be required if they are to beat France for the first time in four meetings.
TIME LINE: 13 minutes - Italy penalty: Ramiro Pez - 0-3; 26 mins - Ireland try: Jerry Flannery - 5-3; conversion: Ronan O'Gara - 7-3; 29 mins - Italy try: Mirco Bergmasco - 7-8; conversion: Ramiro Pez - 7-10; 39 mins - Italy yellow card: Ramiro Pez (late tackle); 40 mins - Ireland penalty: Ronan O'Gara - 10-10; Half-time - Ireland 10 Italy 10; 45 mins - Italy penalty: Paul Griffen - 10-13; 48 mins - Ireland try: Tommy Bowe - 15-13; conversion: Ronan O'Gara - 17-13; 59 mins - Ireland penalty: Ronan O'Gara - 20-13; 61 mins - Italy penalty: Ramiro Pez - 20-16; 67 mins - Ireland penalty: Ronan O'Gara - 23-16; 78 mins - Ireland penalty: Ronan O'Gara - 26-16; Full-time - Ireland 26 Italy 16
IRELAND: Geordan Murphy; Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll (capt), Gordon D'Arcy, Tommy Bowe; Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer (Munster); Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Malcolm O'Kelly, Paul O'Connell, Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.
Replacements used: Donncha O'Callaghan for O'Kelly (62 mins). Not used: Rory Best, Simon Best, Johnny O'Connor, Eoin Reddan, David Humphreys, Andrew Trimble.
ITALY: Cristian Stoica; Pablo Canavosio, Gonzalo Canale, Mirco Bergamasco, Ludovico Nitoglia; Ramiro Pez, Paul Griffen; Salvatore Perugini, Fabio Ongaro, Carlos Nieto, Santiago Dellape, Marco Bortolami (capt), Josh Sole, Mauro Bergamasco, Sergio Parisse.Replacements used: Carlo Del Fava for Bortolami (27-33 mins), Aaron Persico for Mauro Bergamasco (62), Del Fava for Bortolami, Martin Castrogiovanni for Nieto (both 67). Not used: Carlo Antonio Festuccia, Andrea Lo Cicero, Simon Picone, Rima Wakarua.
Sin Bin: Pez (Italy) (39 mins)
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
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